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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: May 2018

12 - Korea since 1945


The Korean War

The Cold War first erupted into heated conflict on the Korean peninsula, and the Cold War lingers on still today in Korea long after it has passed into history almost everywhere else. That the first great global crisis of the Cold War era began in Korea was a direct consequence of Allied dispositions at the end of World War II. During that war, the U.S. State Department had contemplated the possibility of a four-power trusteeship to administer the Korean peninsula following its anticipated postwar liberation from Japanese colonial rule. President Roosevelt briefly discussed such plans with the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin at their wartime Yalta conference – President Roosevelt even suggesting that such a trusteeship might need to continue for some twenty or thirty years. But Korea received so little wartime American attention that in 1945 the U.S. Secretary of State reportedly even had to ask someone where Korea is. Japan then surrendered sooner than many people had expected, leaving the United States almost totally unprepared for any immediate action in Korea. Meanwhile, Soviet Russian troops had already entered the peninsula from the north on August 9, 1945, during the final days of World War II. The first U.S. occupation forces in Korea did not arrive in the south until September 8, a full month later. The arriving American GIs found, as one report to the State Department concluded on September 15, “a powder keg ready to explode at the application of a spark.”

Amid the gathering signs of what would soon become an open cold war rivalry between the two former World War II Allies, the United States and the Soviet Union, there was a not unreasonable fear in Washington that the Soviets might press their early advantage to overrun the entire Korean peninsula. A joint partition of Korea was therefore hastily arranged, and it was actually the U.S. Pentagon that somewhat arbitrarily decided on the thirty-eighth parallel – a mere line on a Pentagon office wall map, reflecting no particular preexisting cultural or geographic conditions – as the point of division between the U.S. and Soviet zones. Meanwhile, throughout the Korean peninsula, so-called People's Committees had quickly organized themselves in the wake of Japan's surrender.